Problems with Prayer Lists

by Eric Wright

A serious Christian is a praying Christian. But what do we pray about? Everything, of course. But shouldn’t we have specific requests in mind? The Lord’s prayer gives us six categories that include worship, the extension of God’s kingdom, the embracing of His will, the meeting of our daily needs, the forgiving of our sins and our deliverance from temptation. Besides these important categories, we will also want to intercede for the people and ministries we know.

Unless our memory is as prodigious as the apostle Paul’s, that means writing out a list. Somehow, although he had never been to Rome, Paul lists 35 different people plus their households in his Roman epistle! Unfortunately, my memory is not like his.

For decades I’ve used a series of prayer cards combined with prayer lists sent from various organizations to guide me in prayer. On each card I have space for one day of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on. Some cards list family members, reminding me, for example to pray for 3 grandchildren on Mondays. Then I have cards for various other categories: cards listing relatives, missionaries I know, churches where I’ve ministered, unsaved friends who need the Lord, and organizations needing prayer.

But from time to time, going through my list becomes mechanical, almost like spinning a Buddhist prayer wheel. Bless Joe. Be with Mary. Encourage Sam. Provide for Grace Mission. Amen. And sometimes, I’ve caught myself speeding through the list with the unconscious goal of getting through quickly so I could move on to other “productive’ work. Surely, praying like that is useless.

Should the problems we encounter with a prayer list lead us to abandon the practice? After all, God looks on the heart and He values that which is genuine and passionately felt. Empty ritual, as we see again and again in the prophets, arouses God’s anger. Then, why not just leave our prayer life open to daily bursts of spontaneity?

That may be okay for the angels who cry holy, holy, holy in His presence or for perfect saints but I find myself in neither category. My memory is flawed and my discipline needs a continual upgrade. I suspect that, for many, out of sight is out of mind. Failure to have any kind of prayer list will leave those who are not intimately involved in our lives the target of our prayer only when their Christmas card or missionary letter arrives. This leaves missionaries especially vulnerable—at a time when the missionary prayer meeting has almost disappeared.

Perhaps the answer is to mix spontaneity with discipline. Have a detailed prayer list but ask the Holy Spirit to keep us daily open to spontaneity. Allow our daily Bible reading to guide us during the first part of our prayer time. Then pause with each item on our list and ask the Spirit to impress on our hearts what particular issues need prayer. Praying through our prayer list while stuck in traffic can be a great boon. Sometimes, we need to set our list aside and become open to pressing issues in world affairs, troubles in a friends’ life or challenges at church.

Whatever we do, let’s not give up praying for people and organizations that don’t show on our daily radar. For that we probably need a list.